Studies in Mark 6:14-20: John's Rebuke of Herod's Sin

Mark 6:14-20
“And king Herod heard thereof; for his name had become known1: and he said, John the Baptist is risen from the dead, and therefore do these powers work in him2. But others said, It is Elijah. And others said, It is a prophet, even as one of the prophets. But Herod, when he heard thereof, said, John, whom I beheaded, he is risen. For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife; for he had married her. For John said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife. And Herodias set herself against him3, and desired to kill him; and she could not; for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous man and a holy, and kept him safe4. And when he heard him, he was much perplexed; and he heard him gladly5“ (6:14-20, R.V.).
The activities of the Lord Himself and the separate testimonies of His apostles at this period reached the ears of king Herod. The name of Jehovah's Servant was becoming famous through His own mighty works, and now through the labors of His servants. Herod did not know Jesus of Nazareth, but his memory was full of John the Baptist, for he had but recently pronounced the cruel sentence of his execution. And when tidings came of one who was working the works of God in Galilee, he could only think of the righteous and holy prophet who had been as the mouth of God to him.
But how were these miracles of Jesus Christ, so numerous and striking as they were, to be explained? The testimony of the Baptist was not accompanied by signs; as the people said of him on one occasion, “John did no miracle,” his service differing in this respect from that of the Messiah. But the superstitious king had an explanation satisfactory to himself, an explanation which his own terrified conscience supplied. John in the flesh wrought no miracles, but John returned from the grave must be, and was, full of supernatural energy. Herod said, “John the Baptist is risen from the dead, and therefore do these powers work in him.” And yet though this wicked ruler professed to believe there was a messenger from the dead in the land he did not repent, and he is therefore a solemn example of the truth of “father Abraham's” words in our Lord's parable— “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luke 16:30, 3130And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. 31And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead. (Luke 16:30‑31)).
Popular opinion said of the Lord that he was Elijah, the promised prophet (Mal. 4:55Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: (Malachi 4:5)), or one of God's prophetic messengers. There was no unanimity in the estimates of the public, as the apostles also stated in their reply to the Lord's question concerning current opinions (Matt. 16:1414And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. (Matthew 16:14); Mark 8:2828And they answered, John the Baptist: but some say, Elias; and others, One of the prophets. (Mark 8:28); Luke 9:1010And the apostles, when they were returned, told him all that they had done. And he took them, and went aside privately into a desert place belonging to the city called Bethsaida. (Luke 9:10)). Herod however had personal reasons for his own theory. It was he who beheaded John. And he now believed that John lived again in the prophet of Galilee.
There was some substratum of truth in Herod's opinion, though he was 'unconscious of it. He was wrong as to the identity of the Person who was preaching the kingdom of God, but he was right in that John's testimony of truth and holiness was still being declared. He had removed the head of the Baptist, but the voice that spoke of righteousness and purity was not silenced. The witnesser for the truth may be slain, and his gory head displayed in the orgies of the wicked, but truth itself is not put to death by the sword. And Herod was not mistaken in thinking that the Voice then preaching in Capernaum and Chorazin was saying to him, “It is not lawful for thee to have her.”
It is well to note that the Gospel history here becomes retrospective. Mark, in the early part of the book, mentions the imprisonment of John in connection with the commencement of the ministry of Jesus (1:14), but makes no further mention of the Baptist until now, when he turns back to narrate his violent end. John was truly the forerunner of the Messiah the righteous Servant of Jehovah, to the very last act of public testimony. He witnessed to the Anointed Sufferer not less in the prison than in the wilderness; for both he and his Master were cut off in the midst of their days. Peter and others followed the Lord to a martyr's end, but John had the unique privilege of immediately preceding Him.
The historical references here to the death of John the Baptist by Herod, bring in the subject of the civil government of the Holy Land at the time of our Lord. The people and country were tributary to Rome, that Western power which had then but recently assumed absolute supremacy in the political world. This subjection was not a surprise to those in Israel who had drunk of the spirit of prophecy. The Roman Empire was prefigured in the Image-vision of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 2), the “iron government being the fourth in order of succession of the Gentile empires there portrayed. Daniel also saw it in prophetic vision under the figure of the fourth beast, terrible and powerful “with great iron teeth” (Dan. 7:77After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns. (Daniel 7:7)).
In the New Testament history we find this “iron” rule in exercise at the time of the birth of Christ. Caesar Augustus issued a decree that “all the world should be taxed,” or enrolled (Luke 2:11And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (Luke 2:1)). In obedience to this edict Joseph and Mary, lineal descendants of the royal line of David, went up submissively from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea. The position of servitude in which the chosen people stood to the great Empire is further shown by the circulation in their midst of the Roman currency in which they paid taxes to their over-lords (Luke 20:19-2619And the chief priests and the scribes the same hour sought to lay hands on him; and they feared the people: for they perceived that he had spoken this parable against them. 20And they watched him, and sent forth spies, which should feign themselves just men, that they might take hold of his words, that so they might deliver him unto the power and authority of the governor. 21And they asked him, saying, Master, we know that thou sayest and teachest rightly, neither acceptest thou the person of any, but teachest the way of God truly: 22Is it lawful for us to give tribute unto Caesar, or no? 23But he perceived their craftiness, and said unto them, Why tempt ye me? 24Show me a penny. Whose image and superscription hath it? They answered and said, Caesar's. 25And he said unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar's, and unto God the things which be God's. 26And they could not take hold of his words before the people: and they marvelled at his answer, and held their peace. (Luke 20:19‑26)).
Again, the supremacy of the Roman government in the land of Israel was demonstrated by their exclusive exercise of the function of condemning prisoners to the extreme penalty After the flood the authority of man in government to punish the murderer by death, previously reserved by God,. was conferred by Him upon Noah and his descendants. God decreed that “Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made he man” (Gen. 9:66Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. (Genesis 9:6)). This power was recognized and in use throughout the successive forms of government in Israel, and after Israel's subjugation it was exercised by the Gentile empires. For instance, Daniel testified of Nebuchadnezzar, the “head of gold,” that “all peoples, nations, and languages, trembled and feared before him; whom he would he slew, and whom he would he kept alive” (Dan. 5:1919And for the majesty that he gave him, all people, nations, and languages, trembled and feared before him: whom he would he slew; and whom he would he kept alive; and whom he would he set up; and whom he would he put down. (Daniel 5:19)).
And the Roman emperors, though not so absolute in their rule as their Babylonian predecessors, reserved to themselves and to their local representatives the right of judicial execution. The Jews admitted to Pilate their lack of this authority: “It is not lawful,” they said, “for us to put any man to death” (John 18:3131Then said Pilate unto them, Take ye him, and judge him according to your law. The Jews therefore said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death: (John 18:31)). This authority was in the hands of the Roman governor who arrogantly and insolently said to his Just and Holy prisoner, “Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power, [authority] to crucify thee, and have power (authority] to release thee?” (John 19:1010Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee? (John 19:10)). This authority of Pilate Jesus. did not deny, but rather traced that authority to its true source—not to his imperial master at Rome but to the Sovereign Ruler of all: “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above” (John 19:1010Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee? (John 19:10); cp. Rom. 13:1-41Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. 2Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 3For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. (Romans 13:1‑4)). Never was this judicial authority more flagrantly abused than it was by Pilate, the representative of the Roman empire. Weakly submitting to the will of the Jews, he freed Barabbas the malefactor whom he should have executed for murder, and condemned Jesus the Benefactor to be crucified.
The rule of the Herods was subservient to Rome. Several members of the Herod family are mentioned in the New Testament history, but most were enemies to Christ and to those who bore His name.
5. Herod Agrippa II. had Paul brought before him as prisoner (Acts 25:13-2713And after certain days king Agrippa and Bernice came unto Caesarea to salute Festus. 14And when they had been there many days, Festus declared Paul's cause unto the king, saying, There is a certain man left in bonds by Felix: 15About whom, when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me, desiring to have judgment against him. 16To whom I answered, It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man to die, before that he which is accused have the accusers face to face, and have licence to answer for himself concerning the crime laid against him. 17Therefore, when they were come hither, without any delay on the morrow I sat on the judgment seat, and commanded the man to be brought forth. 18Against whom when the accusers stood up, they brought none accusation of such things as I supposed: 19But had certain questions against him of their own superstition, and of one Jesus, which was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive. 20And because I doubted of such manner of questions, I asked him whether he would go to Jerusalem, and there be judged of these matters. 21But when Paul had appealed to be reserved unto the hearing of Augustus, I commanded him to be kept till I might send him to Caesar. 22Then Agrippa said unto Festus, I would also hear the man myself. To morrow, said he, thou shalt hear him. 23And on the morrow, when Agrippa was come, and Bernice, with great pomp, and was entered into the place of hearing, with the chief captains, and principal men of the city, at Festus' commandment Paul was brought forth. 24And Festus said, King Agrippa, and all men which are here present with us, ye see this man, about whom all the multitude of the Jews have dealt with me, both at Jerusalem, and also here, crying that he ought not to live any longer. 25But when I found that he had committed nothing worthy of death, and that he himself hath appealed to Augustus, I have determined to send him. 26Of whom I have no certain thing to write unto my lord. Wherefore I have brought him forth before you, and specially before thee, O king Agrippa, that, after examination had, I might have somewhat to write. 27For it seemeth to me unreasonable to send a prisoner, and not withal to signify the crimes laid against him. (Acts 25:13‑27)).
The Herods were Idumean in origin, and were placed in the position of titular rulers in Judea and Galilee by the Roman government. The name Idumea is the Greek equivalent of Edom, the land of the descendants of Esau. So that the position of the Jews in the days of the Gospels was humiliating in the extreme. They were not only under the dominion of the Gentile power at Rome, but a son of Esau ruled over them in the land. This order was not according to the purpose of God announced from the beginning—that, of Jacob and his brother, the “elder should serve the younger” (Gen. 25:2323And the Lord said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger. (Genesis 25:23)). But through the unfaithfulness of the chosen people, this divine order was for the time reversed, and Esau was in the ascendant, though an enemy of God and His truth. Indeed hatred and jealousy and bitter animosity against God and the people of God characterize the Edomites throughout the Old Testament records. The last of the prophetic “burdens” declares them to be the people against whom Jehovah has indignation forever (Mal. 1:44Whereas Edom saith, We are impoverished, but we will return and build the desolate places; thus saith the Lord of hosts, They shall build, but I will throw down; and they shall call them, The border of wickedness, and, The people against whom the Lord hath indignation for ever. (Malachi 1:4)). And the New Testament opens with the effort of the Edomite, who was ruler of Edom as well as of Judea and Galilee, to destroy Him who was born King of the Jews (Matt. 2). The bloodthirsty Herod was a true descendant of Doeg the Edomite, the murderer of the priests at Nob (1 Sam. 22:9-199Then answered Doeg the Edomite, which was set over the servants of Saul, and said, I saw the son of Jesse coming to Nob, to Ahimelech the son of Ahitub. 10And he inquired of the Lord for him, and gave him victuals, and gave him the sword of Goliath the Philistine. 11Then the king sent to call Ahimelech the priest, the son of Ahitub, and all his father's house, the priests that were in Nob: and they came all of them to the king. 12And Saul said, Hear now, thou son of Ahitub. And he answered, Here I am, my lord. 13And Saul said unto him, Why have ye conspired against me, thou and the son of Jesse, in that thou hast given him bread, and a sword, and hast inquired of God for him, that he should rise against me, to lie in wait, as at this day? 14Then Ahimelech answered the king, and said, And who is so faithful among all thy servants as David, which is the king's son in law, and goeth at thy bidding, and is honorable in thine house? 15Did I then begin to inquire of God for him? be it far from me: let not the king impute any thing unto his servant, nor to all the house of my father: for thy servant knew nothing of all this, less or more. 16And the king said, Thou shalt surely die, Ahimelech, thou, and all thy father's house. 17And the king said unto the footmen that stood about him, Turn, and slay the priests of the Lord; because their hand also is with David, and because they knew when he fled, and did not show it to me. But the servants of the king would not put forth their hand to fall upon the priests of the Lord. 18And the king said to Doeg, Turn thou, and fall upon the priests. And Doeg the Edomite turned, and he fell upon the priests, and slew on that day fourscore and five persons that did wear a linen ephod. 19And Nob, the city of the priests, smote he with the edge of the sword, both men and women, children and sucklings, and oxen, and asses, and sheep, with the edge of the sword. (1 Samuel 22:9‑19)).
Herod Antipas6, son of Herod the Great, was tetrarch of Galilee, the northern part of his father's dominions, when John the Baptist came into the country round about the Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins and the immediate coming of the Messiah (Luke 3:5-3). This voice crying in the wilderness resounded in the palace of the king. John spoke of an Anointed One whose coming was imminent, and Herod, may have feared in Him, who was announced to appear, a possible rival to his throne, the tenure of which was so notoriously frail. He could hardly have entirely forgotten the incident which happened less than thirty years before when there came Eastern magi to his father's court in Jerusalem, seeking Him who was born King of the Jews. He may also have remembered, amongst other of his father's deeds of blood and cruelty, the horrible slaughter of the babes of Bethlehem perpetrated to ensure the death of the Royal Child. We think it must have been so, for conscience stimulates the most sluggish memory, and Antipas was not altogether dead to conscience.
Moreover, that conscience was appealed to by the dauntless testimony of the Baptist. For John came “in the way of righteousness.” Like Noah, he was a “preacher of righteousness” in a day of unnatural corruption. Like also, his prototype Elijah, he delivered his words of truth in a profligate court. John reproved the king for the many notorious evils he had committed; but perhaps his blackest crime was to marry his brother Philip's wife, and the intrepid prophet did not shrink to denounce the incestuous adulterer to his face, although he sat upon a throne, condemning him by the laws of God and man (Lev. 18:16; 20:2116Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother's wife: it is thy brother's nakedness. (Leviticus 18:16)
21And if a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless. (Leviticus 20:21)
). “It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife” summed up his charge. The king's guilt was trebly great; for the wife of Herod was alive, the husband of Herodias was alive, and Herod and Herodias stood in the relationship of uncle and niece. But there was no repentance. The words of John did not turn this disobedient one “to the wisdom of the Just” (Luke 1:1717And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (Luke 1:17)). Herod hardened his heart, and as the Spirit of God says, in view no doubt of the ancient precept, “Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm,” that he “added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison,” and would have done worse to him, but “when he would have put him to death he feared the multitude because they counted him as a prophet” (Matt. 14:55And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. (Matthew 14:5)). This popular opinion in favor of John was so strong that the chief priests and elders also feared to oppose it (Matt. 21:2626But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet. (Matthew 21:26)).
The king was of a weak and vacillating nature, but not without a susceptibility to influences for good. We read that “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous man and a holy, and kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was much perplexed: and he heard him gladly.” The invincible nature of truth and, righteousness is exemplified in the king's attitude toward the Baptist. It was Herod, not John, who feared. The empurpled voluptuary was a moral coward in the presence of the prophet, as such must be before the righteous and the holy. The licentious monarch had abandoned himself to the luxurious gratification of his every evil passion, for which the manners of his court gave him every facility. In contrast with this royal self-indulgence, John had learned the difficult lesson, of self-denial and self-conquest in the solitudes of the wilderness. His hairy garment and his frugal diet were outward indications of the moral attitude of the man who by severe self-discipline, qualified himself (so far as man may do so) for his dignified mission. John, who called the people to sackcloth and ashes, was not a man “clothed in soft raiment” himself. He came neither eating nor drinking, for it was a day of fasting, and a day for men to afflict their souls.
His practice corresponded with his preaching. The divine object, announced in the song of his father Zacharias, was that the people of Israel might serve God “in holiness and righteousness” all their days. And accordingly the forerunner of the Messiah was a righteous and a holy man himself, and this character of John was so well-known and well-established that even the evil and suspicious king knew it, and feared him in consequence.
Nevertheless, in spite of this admission, the unrighteous and unholy ruler did not release his righteous and holy prisoner, but held him in custody. Yet this attitude was no strange event in the world's history, for evil's enmity of the good it sees in another has repeated itself from the beginning. Why did Cain slay Abel? Because his own works were evil; and like Herod he knew that his brother's were righteous (1 John 3:1212Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother's righteous. (1 John 3:12)). It was so also in the history of Israel when their Messiah came, He whom they denied, and delivered over to Pilate for crucifixion, was pre-eminently the Holy and the Righteous One (Acts 3 it), concerning whom even the crucified robber testified, “He has done nothing amiss.” And is it not the constant experience, of those who are the possessors of the kingdom that they are persecuted for righteousness' sake? (Matt. 5:1010Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10); 1 Peter 3:10-1410For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile: 11Let him eschew evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue it. 12For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil. 13And who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good? 14But and if ye suffer for righteousness' sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled; (1 Peter 3:10‑14)). It is true that the followers of Christ are called to a higher standard of suffering-testimony, viz., that which arises out of a confession of the name of Christ; but this highest standard cannot be truly attained unless it is based upon righteousness and holiness of truth, the twin principles of the new creation, (Eph. 4:2424And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. (Ephesians 4:24)).
Herod then feared John, if not as a prophet of God as a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe7 from the malice of his paramour Herodias who sought to kill him. And during the Baptist's imprisonment Herod appears to have summoned his prisoner before him on several occasions, and the faithful words and fearless bearing of the prophet were not without their effect upon the profligate king. “When he heard him, he was perplexed,” or as many read it, “he did many things.” He sought to compromise with the truth by carrying out some minor reforms. But of the foul sin of which he was guilty before the eyes of his kingdom and before the eyes of his God, he was impenitent. He did many things, but not the one thing. He heard John gladly too; and it is also said elsewhere, that the common people heard Jesus gladly (Mark 12:3737David therefore himself calleth him Lord; and whence is he then his son? And the common people heard him gladly. (Mark 12:37)). But such gladness is not associated with the hearing by which faith comes.